Autonomous driving in cities – opportunity or risk?

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Text: Juliane Gringer
Photos: Oliver Soulas Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, David Ausserhofer, Fraunhofer FOKUS

The transport infrastructures of large cities are reaching the limits of what they can handle. The roads are becoming congested with an increasing number of delivery services and individual mobility solutions. Is autonomous driving the answer? Would it make urban mobility safer, more efficient and cleaner – or would it just mean even more vehicles on city roads, thus causing the system to break down completely?

In Berlin, between Ernst-Reuter-Platz and the Brandenburg Gate, research is being conducted into the use of autonomous vehicles in everyday road situations. The Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communication Systems, FOKUS, is putting several highly automated cars onto the road along this four-kilometre test route so that they can reliably learn to perceive their surroundings in real time, and then react accordingly. Cameras and lasers on board continuously scan everything around them in a 360-degree radius. Autonomous driving technology is developing rapidly. But can the cities keep pace?

Dr Ilja Radusch, head of the Fraunhofer Institute’s Smart Mobility division FOKUS, believes autonomous driving offers many opportunities: ‘Urban road transport poses major challenges for cities. The concepts currently in use are between 30 and 40 years old and focus primarily on bans and reductions. I think that digitisation can bring about dynamic change in this field, and that interconnectivity and automation will help us achieve our desired goals, such as minimising emissions whilst simultaneously preserving people’s mobility.’

Less pollution – greater safety

His team is working on several autonomous driving projects in which scientists are looking for solutions to unresolved technical challenges. For example, in one project they are testing communication technologies on another test route in Berlin, with the goal of enabling vehicles to interact with each other more closely in order to increase efficiency and road safety. The greatest hurdle lies in perceiving the environment – in other words, in reliably recognising the different variations of lanes, traffic signs, or traffic lights in real time. Digitising the road infrastructure can help in this respect, for example, by communicating the signal phases of the traffic lights to the car or warning the vehicle of moving roadworks.

»With the help of interconnectivity and automation, it will be possible to lower emissions while preserving people’s mobility.«

Dr Ilja Radusch, head of the Smart Mobility division at the Fraunhofer Institute FOKUS

To him, interconnectivity and automation open up completely new opportunities in traffic control. ‘In order to reduce fine dust pollution in the city, for example, traffic routing could also take the wind into account, since it heavily impacts where the dust spreads. If we now imagine that a satnav has access to this information and uses it to plan a vehicle’s route, on days when the wind is blowing unfavourably, it could redirect vehicles so that the dust is blown into a relatively unpopulated area instead of into the city centre,’ explains the expert. ‘This works through simple connectivity, and would be even easier with autonomous vehicles.’

The threat of a complete breakdown without a legal framework

Martina Hertel, research associate at German Institute for Urban Affairs (Difu), is sceptical. She doesn’t believe that the use of driverless cars will become established in cities, but that instead vehicles will only be highly automated – the system will no longer need to be monitored continuously, but will be able to signal and change lanes automatically, for example. ‘We also don’t believe that automated and interconnected driving in cities will solve any traffic problems,’ she says.

»Autonomous driving is too expensive, externally controlled, slow and takes up too much space, technically still too prone to failure, too impersonal, insufficiently integrated and not compatible with city life.«

Martina Hertel, research associate at the German Institute for Urban Affairs (Difu)

It does offer the prospect of increased safety on city roads, giving citizens more free time, new flexibility in public transport and making it easier to supply goods to consumers thanks to driverless deliveries. Nevertheless, Hertel believes that the disadvantages outweigh the benefits, and that autonomous driving is ‘too expensive, externally controlled, slow and takes up too much space, technically still too prone to failure, too impersonal, insufficiently integrated and not compatible with city life’. In summary, she says that ‘autonomous driving offers many opportunities, but without an appropriate legal framework and meaningful control, it poses the risk of the system breaking down completely’.

Transport policy needs to move in a new direction

Ilja Radusch doesn’t view the situation quite as drastically: ‘From a scientific point of view, traffic jams are not a sign that the system has completely broken down, but simply that the demand for mobility that takes citizens from A to B exceeds the supply, i.e. the free road capacity. Digital, autonomous sharing services, including public transport, make it possible to implement demand-driven mobility pricing as a sustainable alternative to congestion. Traffic planning must lay the groundwork for the technology to make it into everyday life. Above all, I would like to see greater digitisation of the road infrastructure, as it can greatly reduce congestion on our roads in conjunction with autonomous vehicles.’ According to Martina Hertel, the only way to prevent the system from completely breaking down is for politicians to implement a ‘transport revolution’ and citizens to show greater willingness to share cars via sharing concepts: ‘Otherwise, the only realistic scenarios are those in which even more vehicles are on the road and congestion gets worse as a result.’

A study commissioned by the World Economic Forum and consulting firm Boston Consulting shows that autonomous cars tend to increase traffic on the roads rather than reduce it: ‘Autonomous vehicles (AVs) will increase traffic in already crowded city centres, not decrease it,’ say the authors. This is because a door-to-door service with guaranteed seating and a convenient booking process could be offered at very competitive prices. And for journeys of less than four miles, users would certainly prefer them to public transport more often. This then results in more traffic, particularly where roads are already crowded – in city centres. According to the study, autonomous cars could reduce the total number of vehicles in the entire metropolitan area, shorten travel times and thus reduce congestion, noise and pollution.

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